Thursday, August 20, 2009

Teachable Moments

Teachable moments are those occurences in daily life when we have an of-the-moment opportunity to seize a situation and impart a lesson or knowledge to someone else. President Obama recently brought the phrase onto the radar screen of the national lexicon when he attempted to pounce upon the race-infused debate about the Massachusetts cop and Harvard professor and make it his own teachable moment. (I'm not so sure this was the best example of a teachable moment, or how to take advantage of one...)

Within the gluten-free world, on the other hand, I'm often faced with teachable moments many times when dining out. My recent Xterra race in Nebraska was a perfect example. The post-race lunch on-site was BBQ provided by a local joint...pulled pork, sauce, potato chips, pickles, and fresh iced tea.

As I came to the front of the line, I asked to see the container for the BBQ sauce so I could read the ingredients. "It's BBQ sauce," the server told me. "Yes, I know," I replied politely. And here was my tailor-made teachable moment. I could have said, "I have Celiac Disease and I need to make sure the sauce doesn't have gluten in it." That, in turn, would likely have been followed up by one or both of two possible questions from the server: What is Celiac Disease? What is gluten? I then could have dutifully responded in kind, and I could claim my teachable moment victorious.

But I didn't seize the moment. Instead, I said, "I have a food allergy and need to make sure this food is safe to eat." Why did I take that route? Because sometimes I don't want to be an ambassador. Sometimes, I'm just a guy who's hungry and wants to eat. I want to find out if the food is safe for me to eat, and if the answer is yes, I just want to eat it. No complications or delays needed.

People don't bat an eyelash when you say "food allergy." It's a case of "enough said." They don't need the specifics. On the other hand, when you start dropping bombs like "Celiac Disease" and "gluten," which aren't necessarily household words in all parts of the country (yet), you can hear the record skip and the room go quiet. But not at Xterra BOLT in Nebraska. In response to my food allergy comment, the server simply said, "Oh yes, we don't want you to get sick or have a medical emergency." She handed me the bottle, I confirmed that the sauce was safe, I stepped out of line, and found a picnic table to eat my lunch.

But why not seize the teachable moment? Am I really so impatient at times? Sure, I was hungry and tired after the race, but surely I could have found the inner reserves to change my word choice and answer a probable question or two. There's more at work, though.

When it comes to teachable moments with Celiac Disease and gluten (and this applies to lots of other scenarios), there's a social reluctancy. I hesitate to say "social fear," which may be too strong a term. It's a social reluctancy of disrupting the flow. I'm reminded of a somewhat recent Visa commercial in which all the customers are rapidly swiping their credit cards, flawlessly executing their consumer purchases without disrupting the flow. Then a customer has the nerve (!) to pull out cash (cash! our primary form of currency!), and everything comes to a disruptive, jarring, screeching halt.

Standing in line for BBQ at that race, me and my teachable moment were that customer with cash. Behind me, a line of racers and spectators and volunteers stretched across the lawn, all waiting for their food. Who was I to disrupt this lunch line that moved through the BBQ serving stations with a speed and efficiency that would have made Henry Ford and his assembly line proud. As I neared the front of the line and the impending moment of opportunity loomed, I knew - maybe even dreaded, in some small way - that I'd be disrupting and slowing that smooth flow. So I balked at my teachable moment.

Yes, there are times when a man just wants to eat. But there are also times, for better or worse, when teachable moments aren't quite the right moment (ahem, beer on the White House lawn, anyone?). Maybe the shortcoming is mine - perhaps I need more patience, or greater willingness to be disruptive and seize the moment. Only by doing that will we one day reach a time and a threshold of awareness when teachable moments, at least in the world of CD and gluten, become a thing of the past.

- Pete


glutenfreeforgood said...


Great post! I know exactly (EXACTLY) what you felt like in that line. Good analogy with the cash-paying customer. But, you know, there's a time and place for everything and sometimes it's better to skip the teachable moment and get on with things.

I've always taken pride in NOT being a "high maintenance" woman. A month of ski mountaineering, no whining from me. Carrying a loaded backpack 250 miles, no complaints here. So, switching gears and being the one who has "issues" is difficult. Especially "issues" with food.

Increasing awareness is one thing and that's what our goal is, so teachable moments should come often for us, but there are times when asking a couple of quick questions and pulling out the debit card is the best way to go! Especially when you're tired and hungry.

Good one, Pete.

peterbronski said...

Hey Melissa... Thanks! Yes, there's definitely a time and a place. "High maintenance" is a good way to put it. Like you, I like to think of myself as a low maintenance person who can go with the flow, but when it comes to diet, all bets are off.

Cheers, Pete

Cheryl Doyle-Ruffing said...

Just last night, at a friend's gathering, one of the guests picked up the box of gluten-free crackers provided especially for me and my daughter and exclaimed, "These have no wheat?! No flour?! Would they be good for my temperamental belly?" I thought about seizing the moment. I think my 11-year-old, celiac, diabetic daughter even gave me "that look," but instead of asking a few questions and suggesting the woman get tested for celiac disease (or at least research the subject), I said nothing. After seven years of trying to help others escape their gluten-induced misery, I've gotten tired of the "oh, I don't have that" comments; the "you think everyone has celiac disease" comments; and simply expending so much energy in an effort to help someone who would probably rather remain blissfully ignorant.

Gluten Free Steve said...

Pete - I know just how you feel. At times, I feel I can do more and teach more so there is more awareness and understanding of what gf means and what is needed. Other times, I just want to eat!! It's a tough call.

peterbronski said...

Hi Cheryl... I can certainly understand your reluctancy to seize the moment, for fear of the "you think everyone has celiac" response. I think we do have a tendency to "see ourselves" in others (kind of like noticing all the other Jeeps on the road when you also drive a Jeep). And because we're so immersed in the signs and symptoms (having experienced it personally), we're in a position to identify it in other people.

Hi Steve... Yes! Sometimes, I just want to eat. There's no harm in that, I think!

Cheers, Pete

gfe--gluten free easily said...

Great post, Pete. I have a similar discussion coming up on gfe and I'll reference this post. Those of us who are GF all know EXACTLY what you are saying! Sometimes you just do the best you can and move on ...


peterbronski said...

Hi Shirley... Looking forward to your related post on this topic! I'll stay tuned to GFE! (which I do anyway...)

Cheers, Pete